My Fashion, My Choice

I strolled to class in my usual fall gear; a thick grey sweater dress, graced with a faun pashmina scarf, thick opaque tights, and black flats. My charcoal winter trench coat was my favorite asset in my fall wardrobe, and I preferred it to be not belted, so the coat could fly behind me in the wind, it made me seem older and a little mysterious. As I settled down in my seat, the professor looked at me me with appraisal.
“You always look good. Is there a special reason you have to dress up every day?”
I was slightly taken aback. After all, wasn’t coming to class enough reason to dress up? Coming to class itself was an occasion, and I had to be presentable and rise to the occasion. Anyway, I muttered something about my job at the admissions office requiring me to dress up (even though I didn’t have work that day), just so that she wouldn’t continue her interrogation during class time.
I remember my first few weeks of class in the U.S, and how taken aback I was at the sheer casual attire of students to class; sweat pants, boxers, t-shirts, slippers. So as not to stand out, appear overdressed and blend in, shy and naïve Ngozi decided to join the throng of flip flop wearing, shorts –sporting, and sweater –donning crowd, to class. It wasn’t bad, it represented a certain type of freedom to me. I didn’t have to think about my outfit for the next day, besides, I loved wearing shorts because I could show off my amazing legs.
This laid-back attitude to appearance changed when I went home that summer for an internship. The next day, I needed to go into town with my mum, and as I donned a pair of plain black flip flops, jeans, and a plain t-shirt, she chuckled in amusement, and chided “Please, that is not how we dress here. Change your clothes”. I was suddenly yanked back to my roots and reminded that dressing up, at least in my culture, was a form of showing respect to others, as well as an indication of self-respect.
The incident with the female professor happened in my sophomore year after I spent some time home, and even though I developed an attitude of attempting to dress up, frequent comments of my ‘overdressing’ made me exhausted and I still dressed down occasionally.
But this is not a phenomenon that involves just culture shock. In an article by Chimamanda Adichie on Elle Magazine, she stated that at a writing workshop, someone had made a comment about a female lecturer who could not be taken seriously because of her elaborate dress and makeup. This perception seems to cut across cultures, where a woman, especially if she is a young woman, has to either dress down or plainly in order to be taken seriously. Various words and phrases such as “loud makeup” “provocative attire” and “flashy”, are used as labels to describe women who just like to dress up, either for work or relaxation. Women who appear who want to be taken seriously, or seen as smart, or intellectual, cannot appear to be “too loud”.
Dressing up and dressing down, should be a choice, without a woman’s respectability, beauty and intellect being policed by anyone. It goes both ways in the sense that women who are not huge fans of dressing up or makeup, should not be perceived as “boring” or “ dull” the same way as women who prefer to don weaves, braids, wigs, elaborate makeup and gorgeous dresses should not be perceived as “ unserious”, or not intellectually capable. Women who have identified as feminist such as Janet Mock, Chimamanda Adichie and Gloria Steinem, also have impeccable style befitting to their contexts. These women are taken seriously in their different spheres of influence and have driven challenging discussions on race, feminism and inequality. A woman’s decision to prettify herself is not a direct allusion to her intellectual capabilities and the value of her contributions to society.

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